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Tribes Flex Power on Sacred Sites


A formidable Capitol coalition of local governments, builders and landowners is feeling the power of California's Native American lobby in a fight over a bill created to safeguard sacred sites.

Senate Bill 1828 would compel government agencies to notify a Native American tribe of any proposed development within 20 miles of its reservation and could require developers to reduce the effects of such a project.

According to business groups and other opponents, if it is signed into law, the reality could be an avalanche of lawsuits and endless development delays. They say economic growth and development in California are at stake.

Gov. Gray Davis has until the end of the month to sign or veto the bill, which the Legislature approved before adjourning Sept. 1.

The Senate's own staff analysis says the bill could cost businesses and state agencies millions of dollars a year in project delays.

At the governor's urging, the bill's author, Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco), accepted amendments to address some of these concerns. Davis' spokeswoman, Hilary McLean, noted the governor's awareness that business groups still are not satisfied. She said Davis had not decided whether he would sign the legislation.

Ignoring California's Native American tribes is not an easy choice for any state politician these days.

With casino-generated cash rolling in, the tribes are a fast-rising political force, plying Davis and other politicians with millions in campaign contributions and expanding their legislative interests beyond gambling issues.

The relative ease with which such a controversial bill sailed through the Legislature attests to growing Indian clout, both opponents and supporters say.

At every turn, the tribes routed their opponents: The Senate passed the bill 22 to 10 on May 29. An amended version sailed through the Assembly in a 53-12 vote Aug. 28. And the Senate approved that version the next day, 22 to 7, sending the bill to the governor's desk.

The tribes and their supporters have insisted that SB 1828 is not as far-reaching as opponents fear.

"If the bill passes, it will help us a lot," said Pauline Jose, cultural committee chairwoman of the Quechan tribe, whose fight with Glamis Gold Inc. over a proposed Imperial County strip mine inspired the bill. "All we want to do is preserve and protect the sacred sites."

Opponents say the prescription imposed by SB 1828 is too extreme. Speaking against the bill during last month's floor debate, Sen. Steve Peace (D-El Cajon) held up a map showing that, under the bill, most new projects in San Diego County would be subject to tribal vetting.

"I am very fearful of the potential consequences," he said.

Opponents have said the extent of those consequences is not clear because the definition of "sacred site" is so broad and the location of existing sites is kept secret to prevent looting. In part, the bill defines a sacred site as "any geophysical or geographical area or feature" that "is sacred to Native American tribes by virtue of its traditional cultural or religious significance or ceremonial use, or by virtue of a ceremonial or cultural requirement."

The California Native American Heritage Commission maintains an official list of about 1,500 Indian cultural and religious sites.

Only about 300 of them are religious sites, with an average size of one-fourth of an acre, said Laura Miranda, a Pechanga Indian and senior staff attorney for the California Indian Legal Services.

The Burton bill, however, would allow Indians to add more sites to the list by presenting oral histories or other evidence to support their claims.

Opponents say that could cripple development projects with delays and lawsuits, such as the Pechanga challenge that has blocked a proposed San Diego Gas & Electric Co. transmission line in Riverside County.

"We still have concerns about the kind of obstacles that could exist with the language of the bill," said Michael Turner, government relations manager at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority.

A constitutional challenge by business interests is also looming. Opponents contend that the bill would violate the 1st Amendment by granting official recognition to Indian religious beliefs.

What concerns many opponents most is that the bill would grant protection to Indian sacred sites beyond the project review criteria laid down by the California Environmental Quality Act, the law that oversees development in the state.

That review process seeks a balance of economic, social and cultural considerations in weighing whether a project can proceed. Under the Burton bill, if a developer and a tribe can't agree on how to safeguard a sacred site threatened by a project, economic considerations would be eliminated as a valid reason for proceeding.

That would give tribes a de facto veto over most projects, opponents have said. "The implications could be significant on infrastructure projects, economic development and job creation," said Jeanne Cain, vice president of government relations for the California Chamber of Commerce.

Supporters, however, said Assembly amendments have addressed most of these concerns. For example, they said tribal veto power has been eliminated by shifting the final say over projects from the Native American Heritage Commission--as the bill originally prescribed--to the local planning commission, city council or county board of supervisors.

"Yeah, it raises the bar a little bit, but it's not intended to--and won't--hinder economic development or cost jobs," said Mark Macarro, tribal chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, a Southern California-based tribe at the forefront of the fight for SB 1828. "All we're saying is, let's be a little more responsible, let's be a little more judicious about how we go about development."

In a larger sense, Indian leaders and their supporters have said, the bill is about giving Native American beliefs the same respect and protection as those of other Californians.

"Current law allows wholesale destruction of tribal sacred sites and cultural resources," Macarro said. "We've been trying to deal with this for years, but with the pace of development and the existing law, we're powerless."

Not anymore, thanks to the growing list of Indian friends in the Legislature.

Reining in property owners and developers is the sort of cause that has long been associated with Burton and other liberal Democratic legislators. But in the battle for SB 1828, Burton--a favorite of Indian tribes dispensing political contributions--has some unlikely bedfellows.

For starters, there's Sen. Jim Battin (R-La Quinta), an outspoken property-rights advocate in previous legislative debates. Speaking in support of the bill, Battin noted that he might have more Indian tribes in his district than any other senator.

Those tribes have generously supported Battin, giving him nearly $400,000 in political contributions since January 2000.

Battin said the bill is about respecting Native American religious beliefs, not stopping development.

"I also get contributions from developers and all sorts of people on both sides of this issue, and my votes are not predicated at all by political contributions," he said in an interview. "The tribes have every right to express themselves politically through contributions."

Another influential Indian ally is veteran Assemblyman Bill Leonard (R-San Bernardino), a longtime critic of what he characterizes as the regulatory burden on businesses, except in this case.

"He's not a screaming environmentalist," Burton wryly noted about his old adversary and newfound ally. "He's not a do-gooder."

Leonard is a frequent recipient of campaign contributions from Native American tribes, both for his past Assembly campaigns and in his current quest for a Board of Equalization seat. Term limits prevent Leonard from remaining in the Assembly.

In his Board of Equalization campaign, Leonard has reported $149,894 in contributions during the first half of 2002. More than $50,000 came from Native American tribes and their political action committees.

Like Battin and other supporters of the bill, Leonard has said his vote had nothing to do with campaign contributions. "I respect religion, and I believe the Constitution requires us to respect religion," he said in an interview.

He also sympathizes with landowners who would be affected by the bill, he said. "It's one of these balancing acts that the Legislature is called upon to do," Leonard said.

Indian tribes are not the only ones contributing heavily in the debate over SB 1828. Developers, ranchers, growers, construction companies and energy firms--many of whom oppose the bill--have been significant campaign contributors to legislators for years.

But Macarro, the Pechanga tribal leader, said campaign contributions and lobbying are finally giving Native Americans a voice in shaping public policy. "In this day and age, to be able to have the resources to draw on to right some of the major inequities that have occurred over the past 150 years gives us hope," Macarro said. "There's this legacy of dispossession and disenfranchisement that now we can do something about."

Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times

SEND a letter to the editor:
SEND a letter of support to Governor Davis for SB 1828, protecting Quechan Indian Pass and requiring complete backfill for open pit mines:

Hon. Governor Gray Davis
State Capitol Building
Sacramento, CA 95814
Phone: 916.445.2841
Fax: 916.445.4633
[email protected]

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